San Francisco Chronicle
Schools hail tech as funds add up
Benioff ’s pledge of $100 million met 1 year early
It was an audacious philanthropic pledge.
Salesforce founder Marc Benioff said in 2013 he would donate $100 million within 10 years to San Francisco and other local middle schools to boost technology and help provide whatever else the classrooms needed.
At the time, few education philanthropists had such an attention span, often shifting from one project to another, and so for some teachers and administrators, that amount of money and long-term commitment sounded like a pipe dream.
That first year, Benioff started with $2.5 million through the Salesforce Foundation. Then $5 million the next year and more every year after, adding Oakland middle schools to the recipient list six years ago.
This year, nine years after the first grants, Benioff and his foundation have hit the $100 million mark and have no plans to pull the plug.
“It’s been nine years, but it’s only been nine years,” said Ebony Beckwith, CEO of the Salesforce Foundation and chief philanthropy officer for the company. “The school districts still need us.”
Beckwith said they’ve seen increased test scores in the districts — one measure of success — but the funding is also about exposing students to computer science, coding, art, music or other opportunities they wouldn’t have without the funding.
“It’s not giving for the sake of giving,” she added. “It’s giving to make an impact.”
This year, San Francisco and
Oakland will each get $7.5 million, which includes funding for middle school math, computer science and other programs, as well as the now annual $100,000 spend-as-youplease grants for each middle school principal.
The administrators call it “miracle money.”
“We make the principal the CEO of their school and we give them these dollars to innovate, like we would expect Marc to do,” Beckwith said. “It tells them we trust them.”
The funding has bought a television production studio at San Francisco’s Denman Middle School, and makers labs, coding classes and reading clubs at others. Principals have bought curvy furniture to create collaborative classrooms and revamped playgrounds.
At Westlake Middle School in Oakland, the money pays for people.
The grant helps support a computer science teacher, a math and science teacher for newcomer students, and academic mentors to work with small groups of students, as well as an elective math course, with five or six students in each class, all hovering close to proficiency, said Principal Maya Taylor.
Students are asking for the class, spurning other electives like art and music to get the one-on-one attention, Taylor added.
“We wouldn’t have been able to have any of those things,” she said. “It’s important to have as many support people on the campus as possible.”
Benioff ’s approach is relatively rare in education philanthropy.
He is among a large list of high-tech titans — including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Lauren Powell Jobs and Netflix’s Reed Hastings — who have jumped into education reform efforts in years past.
Often, such funding has strings attached to the benefactor’s pet project, such as small schools, small class sizes, teacher training or an overhaul of high schools.
Unlike his counterparts, Benioff took more of a handsoff approach, each year inviting all middle school principals to his home or office to hear about how they were spending the money and what they needed.
In one case, a principal said dental health problems had an impact on learning and yet students couldn’t always get to a dentist. Benioff bought a dental chair and equipment to create a dental clinic at the school.
“That is really important to me to listen to the kids, listen to the principals, listen to the teachers,” he said in 2016. “I have to have relationships with these people or I can’t do my job as a philanthropist, as a leader.”
His philosophy was nondisruptive, trusting the people on the ground and in the classrooms to know their communities and their kids, he said.
Benioff was fond of saying that people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10.
The money has been the easy part. When Benioff started his company, he committed 1% of equity, 1% of profit in the form of product donations and 1% of employees’ time to the Salesforce charity.
“That was extremely easy for us at the time because we had no employees, we had no profit, and we had no equity,” Benioff said in 2012.
In 2020, the Salesforce.com Foundation, fueled by the company’s $21 billion in annual profits, had more than $300 million in the bank, supporting a wide range of national and international philanthropic efforts.
Last year, the foundation helped with distance learning needs during the pandemic in San Francisco, helping provide students with 35,000 laptops, 11,500 Wi-Fi hot spots and 30,000 learning kits.
This year, the charity is giving $19 million to five school districts — San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Indianapolis and New York City.
The annual donation has also included significant volunteer time from Salesforce employees, who get paid time off to work in the schools — adding up to nearly 53,000 hours in San Francisco and Oakland over the past nine years.
In the early years, the district-wide funding focused on technology, math and computer science, including purchasing Chromebooks and updating internet access. Later, the grants started to fund a wide range of programs, including services for refugee or recent immigrant students in Oakland as well as teacher recruitment and retention.
“Once we got enough devices it shifted toward student support in other ways, paying for staff, additional music, additional art, computer science teachers,” said Armen Sedrakian, principal of San Francisco’s Lawton Alternative K-8 School. “Really, in San Francisco, we’re very fortunate to have that.”
Without the Salesforce funding, the school would have part-time music and art teachers just over half the time. With the money, he has two full-time teachers for art and music.
Yet even after nine years of the donations, it’s a little like an unexpected birthday present when the no-strings, sixfigure check to each middle school arrives, Sedrakian said.
“It is a very pleasant surprise that there is a philanthropist like Mr. Benioff who has actually kept his word and stayed in the long run,” he said, adding any wealthy donor can throw money at a cause. “It’s the long-term that makes the difference.”